Follow TV Tropes


Film / Wolfen

Go To

Wolfen is a 1981 horror-mystery film directed by Michael Wadleigh, based upon the novel The Wolfen by Whitley Strieber.

The plot follows NYPD Detective Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney), who is assigned to solve a bizarre series of violent murders in which it appears the victims were killed by animals. In his investigation, Wilson learns of an Indian legend about wolf spirits, and that there may be predatory shapeshifters living in the vicinity.

Released the same year as An American Werewolf in London and The Howling, Wolfen didn't meet the box-office success of those films, although it was well received by critics and has come to be regarded as somewhat of a Cult Classic.

The following tropes can be used to describe the film:

  • Adaptation Name Change: George Wilson from the book is now Dewey Wilson.
  • Adaptation Personality Change: In the book, Wilson is described as being "lazy, venal, inclined to a Victorian view of women, and a profound slob"; none of these traits can be used to describe Dewey.
  • Adaptation Species Change: The book Wolfen are smarter, more human-like wolves that hunt smartly to avoid detection. In the movie, Wolfen are blatant supernatural wolves and labeled an Ultimate Life Form as a result.
  • Adaptational Job Change: In the book, Rebecca Neff is a detective. Here, she's a criminal psychologist.
  • Aliens in Cardiff: The "wolfen" (hyper-intelligent, near-mystical (if not actually mystical) wolves) have made their den in a derelict church in a run-down neighborhood of the Bronx, and don't take kindly to people coming to demolish their stomping grounds in an attempt to gentrify the borough...
  • Ambiguous Ending: the ending has Detective Dewey Wilson destroy the model for the new development, signifying to the Wolfen that they are no longer under imminent threat of the destruction of their habitat. The Wolfen spare him and Rebecca but are then forced to flee the scene as the police arrive en masse and open fire upon them. They survive but their future is left uncertain as the authorities are now well aware of their existence and they cannot turn back the tide of human encroachment forever (signified by their disappearance in the end scene as they are literally brought into the light of day).
  • Big Bad: The Alpha of the Wolfen pack.
  • The Big Rotten Apple: The fact that it's a point in The '80s when the Bronx was still a borough so run-down that it could be used as the set for a Mad Max movie with very few changes is an important plot point.
  • Bizarre Alien Senses: Possibly the first film to use thermographic footage to illustrate this trope.
  • Black Comedy: There are some moments of this.
  • The Cameo: Tom Waits appears as a bar owner.
  • Canine Confusion: The film claims that wolves — not just its urban superwolves, but real ones — have thermographic vision.
  • Cultural Posturing: The film is pretty low key in this regard until the last act, when the protagonist arrives shell-shocked at a Native American bar after his friend was mauled by a wolf. The Native American characters (one of whom is a Latino) begin rapid fire exposition/cultural posturing as they affirm their way of life is better, the wolf spirits are above our morality, white man's technology has failed him, and he's basically facing gods dishing out divine punishment. Light-handed, it was not. Amusingly, the only two Native American cultures with legends that are directly comparable to werewolves ("skinwalkers", yee naaldlooshii in Navajo and popwaktu in Hopi)...consider them to be Black Magic that can't even be used without you crossing a Moral Event Horizon (the Navajo usually say by incest or fratricide, the Hopi by incest or cannibalism). Both tribes' gods have major ceremonies for warding off such witchery (essentially like the original European Christian view of werewolves, who viewed this a form of witchcraft, a crime punishable by death).
  • Danger Takes A Back Seat: At one point, a wolfen is shown to be hiding in the backseat of a detective's car.
  • Downer Ending: The Wolfen escape, unhindered by the main characters, and will continue to kill people.
  • Fan Disservice: A young Edward James Olmos naked... and acting like a deranged wolf for the sake of pulling a detective's chain.
  • Gorn: While it's not quite so gory by today's standards, the wolves do rip out people's throats, bite off hands, bite off heads, etc.
  • Karma Houdini: The original novel ends with the detectives presenting positive proof of the existence of the Wolfen and the city getting ready to hunt them. In the movie, there is no evidence so the detectives are forced to lie that it was terrorists, allowing the Wolfen to run free. Yet the testimony of other police officers responding to the final scene and forensic evidence the Wolfen have left means that their existence is incontrovertible and they are essentially doomed, signified by their disappearance as they race back to their lair.
  • Losing Your Head: Near the end one character's throat is torn out by a wolf, resulting in his head ending up separate from his body. When it's obvious from the attempted mouthing of words and blinking that the head is still functional, a colleague shoots the car he's next to, putting him out of his misery.
  • Magical Native American: Subverted. See Transformation Sequence below.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: You don't even get to see the beasts until halfway through the film.
  • Oh, Crap!: Two such moments happen during the climax of the film. One is particularly amusing as a wolf materializes in a car with one of the characters.
  • One-Word Title
  • Outside-Context Problem: People are appearing on the streets torn to pieces. One of them is a big-shot architect, his wife and bodyguard. They look like they were attacked by an animal. The police ends up believing that it's a terrorist group with a "wolf" motif all the way to the end credits, because it makes some more sense than New York City being plagued by wolves.
  • Real After All: The characters get to have a moment where it seems the whole big to-do was a hoax, then they walk outside and they learn just how dangerous the Wolfen are.
  • Red Herring: In-Universe, the "Gotterdammerung" terrorist group. The New York Police task force and their computers manage to find connections between some of the deceased and this group, theorize that the murders may have been done by the terrorists as some kind of payback or to deliver a message, and finally manage to perform plenty of damage to it-but most unfortunately to the protagonists this investigation overlooked the possibility of something else being behind the murders...
  • Savage Wolves: The monsters of the story are mystical wolf-like creatures called "Wolfen".
  • Shout-Out: The zookeeper's name is Peter Wolf - as in, Peter and the Wolf?
  • Somewhere, a Mammalogist Is Crying: Wolves apparently have thermographic vision in this 'verse. Not just Wolfen, but regular wolves.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Several of the Wolfen pack are killed on the climax of the book, and after the two protagonist detectives present the dead bodies to the rest of the police, the city starts preparing to hunt down the rest of the Wolfen (and so the book ends on a Defiant to the End Bolivian Army Ending for the wolves). On the film, the wolves are all unhurt from the gunfire and explosions that occur and flee into the night, with the protagonist musing that they will continue to hunt vagrants.
  • Super-Persistent Predator: The Wolfen will hunt a single person all over the City of New York, relentlessly, breaking into places a wolf (even a super-smart one) shouldn't be able to, for the sake of protecting their territory.
  • This Is What the Building Will Look Like: Dewey smashes the model of the building that was going to be build on the Wolfen's land, so that they'll realize that he isn't a threat and stop attacking.
  • Transformation Sequence: Subverted. Eddie Holt strips naked and makes a bunch of lupine noises and gestures, but it appears he's just messing with Dewey's head.